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Reflections on Houston in a Time of Contradiction

From city strangled by fossil fuels, a call to fight for a more equitable future

Last October I visited Houston for the first time. I grew up in the Midwest and have spent half my life in New York City — perhaps the least Texan person possible — but aside from a few cultural differences involving cowboy boots and biscuit-heavy restaurant menus, my background turned out to be good preparation. I was neither cowed by Houston’s skyscrapers nor confused by the hospitality of a Southern city’s people, familiar as the unsolicited smiles Midwesterners give complete strangers.

oil development in HoustonPhoto by Louis Vest Neighborhoods bordering the Houston Ship Canal have some of the worst air pollution in the country.

Because of this, perhaps, I found Houston comfortable, utterly pleasant, welcoming, warm, easy, and yet … the downtown streets at night were deserted, wide, silent. And the ten days or so I spent there transpired strangely, feeling at times much longer than ten days, flipping dramatically between blasting air conditioning and sopping gulps of hot humidity, women and men in slick suits with shiny shoes, women and men in drab clothing covered in dust, or seen from afar framed by open flames on pits of scrap metal.

In New York City it’s easy to feel resilient to the woes of the planet; even in the throes of Hurricane Sandy, many of us continued to eat well and sleep well above 42nd Street. But in Houston, the relentlessness of the heat, the stark discrepancy of bright cleanliness with belches of pollution down the road … in Houston, perhaps, I saw in sharper focus the inevitability of a future many are already living. A deepening divide between “insiders” and “outsiders,” the last gasps of an industry that suckles while it strangles. And today, of course, as the shock of Hurricane Harvey transforms into an increasingly familiar monotony of government bureaucracy, plodding clean-up, and despair of lives lost and put on hold, today it is up to all of us — victims and witnesses alike — to name these contradictions and fight for a more equitable future for all.

But I knew none of this when I arrived in Houston last October, to attend a series of meetings led by the Building Equity and Alignment for Impact (BEA) initiative and hosted by local group Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services (TEJAS). The meeting brought together grassroots, national “green groups,” and philanthropy with the goal of building alignment around the then developing Clean Power Plan (CPP), that late Obama …more

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Phillips 66 Seeks to Increase Number of Oil Tankers on San Francisco Bay

Proposal could pose risk to local communities and wildlife

The oil company Phillips 66 wants to increase the number of tanker ships carrying crude oil across San Francisco Bay to its refinery in Rodeo — from 59 to 135 tankers per year. They have also proposed increasing the average amount of oil unloaded at Rodeo from 51,000 barrels to 130,000 barrels a day.

oil tanker in san francisco bayPhoto by Jill/Blue Moonbeam StudioAn oil tanker crosses under the Golden Gate Bridge. Phillips 66 has submitted a proposal to increase the number of oil takers that can carry oil to its bay-side refinery by more than two-fold.

More than doubling the number of oil tankers would increase the risk of oil spills in the Bay. Oil spilled in the water can kill birds and other wildlife, make the Bay unsafe for recreation, and contaminate local beaches.  

Plus, the company’s proposal raises other concerns. The increased tanker traffic would likely carry dirty, heavy tar sands oil from Canada. This type of oil is difficult, if not impossible, to remove after a spill.

In 2010, when tar sands oil spilled into Michigan’s Kalamazoo River, response crews were unable to completely remove the oil from the riverbed, even after five years of expensive cleanup efforts. If tar sands oil spilled in San Francisco Bay, it could harm wildlife in the water nearby and smother bottom-dwelling creatures that are critical to the Bay’s food chain.

The Phillips 66 refinery already has a poor track record of oil spills. In September 2016, oil was spilled there during the unloading of a tanker ship, causing large oil slicks in the northern San Francisco Bay. Over 100 residents near the refinery sought treatment at hospital emergency rooms for exposure to fumes that were later linked to the oil spill.

And then again, in September of this year, a small spill at the Phillips 66 refinery wharf left a 20 foot by 20 foot oil sheen on the Bay’s water. The impacts of small spills like this can accumulate and harm the overall health and resilience of the Bay and its wildlife.

Phillips’ needs a modified permit from the Bay Area Air Quality District to proceed with the expansion, and the district is beginning work on an environmental impact report for the proposal. Following that process, the board of directors will vote on whether to proceed.

In communities near the refinery, public opposition to Phillips’ expansion proposal is building. Baykeeper, a nonprofit advocating for the health …more

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The Coal Battle Shifts to Southeast Asia

As China and India shift away from coal, the fight to end use of this dirty fuel is moving south

Coal is on the way out years ahead of schedule in China and India. A recent report by CoalSwarm (an Earth Island Project), Sierra Club, and Greenpeace showed that, in 2016, that Asia's two fastest growing economies are shutting down mines, scrapping coal plant plans, and building renewables far faster than nearly anyone expected just a few years ago.

coal barge on a riverPhoto by Andrew Taylor/WDMA coal barge on the Mahakam river in Central Kalimantan. President Joko Widodo's plans to increase power supply in Indonesia is focused almost entirely on coal use.

"In China, there's an almost complete stop to permitting of new coal plants," says Lauri Myllyvirta, a China-based coal and air pollution expert for Greenpeace. "In India, there is weekly news about coal projects being canceled [or] already started projects being in distress. Wind and solar cost competitiveness has happened so fast, very few people foresaw it, or adjusted their strategies in time."

However, there is still a while before we can say coal is, truly, on the way out in Asia. That’s because Indonesia, Vietnam, and the Philippines — the three largest countries in Southeast Asia, with a combined population of over 300 million — are still planning to use coal to electrify their nations. Between them, these three countries are planning to build some 210 new coal-fired plants in the coming years. If all these coal plants are built, they could lock in decades of greenhouse gas emissions, create massive air pollution, and result in the expansion of mines across pristine forests and other natural landscapes across the world.

In Indonesia, for example, coalmines shut down due to collapsing global demand, have left waterways across the country’s coal mining regions poisoned, and vast, previously productive, agricultural regions unfarmable. But instead of adapting to the new reality, Indonesia's President Joko Widodo decided to replace this lost foreign demand with local consumption. His electrification plans for Indonesia focus almost entirely on coal, and they are massive —117 new coal-fired power plants throughout the country, more than 35,000MW of power generation capacity in total.

However, these plans have run into a major roadblock. Grassroots resistance. There has been near constant opposition to one of the largest plants, the 2000-megawatt Batang plant in Central Java. Earlier this year, the Indonesian government withdrew the license of the proposed Cirebon coal plant, which has also faced strong opposition. Even existing coal plants aren’t in the …more

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First-of-its-Kind Lawsuit Seeks Legal Rights for the Colorado River

Case could establish foothold for rights of nature in American courts, say activists

In the first-ever rights of nature lawsuit filed in federal court in the United States, the Colorado River seeks recognition as a “person” with rights to exist, flourish, regenerate, and naturally evolve. Denver-based civil rights attorney Jason Flores-Williams, working with the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF), filed a complaint in the United States District Court, District of Colorado on Tuesday. Though the river itself is named as the plaintiff, five members of the international environmental justice organization Deep Green Resistance (DGR) serve “as next friend” plaintiffs to ensure the river’s interests are protected in court. (Full Disclosure: The author is one of the five “next friends.”)

photo of Colorado riverPhoto by Henrik JohanssonA lawsuit filed yesterday in federal court seeks legal personhood for the Colorado River.

The opening lines of the complaint declare, “Our system of law has failed to stop the degradation of the natural environment, and consequently, has failed to protect the natural and human communities which depend on it for their survival and livelihood.” To remedy this failure, and to give the Colorado River power to enforce its rights, the next friends contend that the Colorado River must be granted standing — the right to sue — in American courts. They also seek a declaration from the federal court that the state of Colorado, the defendant in the case, may be held liable for violating the rights of the river. A victory for the Colorado River would establish a foothold for the rights of nature in American courts and help even the playing field between the natural world and corporations, which already possess standing in the court system.

No ecosystem is more responsible for the facilitation of life — human and non-human — in the arid Southwest than the Colorado River. Climate change exacerbates droughts which deprive the river of water and many of the river’s tributaries have receded. Due to extensive damming, overallocation of the river’s water, and drought, the Colorado River rarely flows all the way to the sea.

DGR is active in water protection campaigns across the West and is committed to the principle that the soil, the air, the water, the climate, and the food we eat, are created by complex communities of living creatures like those creating the Colorado River. As Deanna Meyer, a DGR member and one of the “next friends” explains, “Without the recognition that the Colorado River possesses certain rights of its …more

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Portuguese Kids to Sue 47 EU Governments Over Climate Change

Children from region hit by country's worst forest fires seek crowdfunding for lawsuit

For the last couple of years in the US, 21 children and young adults, known as the “climate kids,” have been involved in a landmark legal suit against the US Government for failing to act on climate change.

The legal action, which was started against the Obama Administration, is now proceeding against Trump and his climate denying Administration. The later has unsuccessfully tried to stop the case from proceeding.

photo of emissions at German power plantPhoto by mjaysplanet, FlickrA group of Portuguese children are suing EU countires alleging that the governments' collective failure to tackle climate change threatens their right to life.

The kids claim the government’s promotion of fossil fuel production and its indifference to rising greenhouse temperatures have resulted in “a dangerous destabilizing climate system” that threatens the survival of future generations.

One of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit is the granddaughter of NASA climate scientist Dr. James Hansen. “In my opinion, this lawsuit is made necessary by the at-best schizophrenic, if not suicidal nature of US climate and energy policy,” Hansen told the court when he testified on the kids’ behalf.

The stakes are high. Mary Wood, a University of Oregon environmental law professor has said the lawsuit is “the biggest case on the planet.” Michael Burger, a Columbia University law professor and specialist in climate law adds “Whatever happens next, this is a case to watch. It’s out there, ahead of the curve.... It may be the opening salvo in what will be an increasing number of lawsuits that take a rights-based approach to climate change in the United States.”

The case is scheduled for trial later this year.

Similar lawsuits have been brought in amongst others, Holland, Belgium, New Zealand, Pakistan, Austria, and South Africa.

And now Portgual joins the list. Schoolchildren aged from five to fourteen from the Leiria region in the country hit by the country’s worst forest fires this summer are seeking crowdfunding to sue 47 European countries, alleging that their collective failure to tackle climate change threatens their right to life. The countries they are targeting are responsible for 15 per cent of global greenhouse emissions.

They are being supported by the NGO Global Legal Action Network, which launched a crowdfunding appeal yesterday on CrowdJustice. According to the funding appeal:

“In June of this year these children watched their district burn as a result of the worst forest fires in their country’s history. The fires, which have …more

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The Snake Lover

A Virginia herpetologist fosters respect for reptiles

“It’s a rainbow!” shouts J.D. Kleopfer.

As I come running from where I am also searching for snakes, I see a beaming Kleopfer, Virginia’s state herpetologist, holding a slender, three-foot long snake with prominent red and gold stripes.

image of J.D. Kleopfer Photo by Betsy Howell J.D. Kleopfer, a Virginia state herpetologist, with a rainbow snake. Kleopfer is involved with everything to do with amphibians and reptiles in Virginia, including surveying for the presence of different species throughout the state .

“I was just about to leave,” he says, “but then I saw her in these rocks and I thought, “Please don’t be dead! The only rainbow I’ve ever seen here was dead, and when I saw flies above her, my heart sank. But then she moved!” As the snake twines through his fingers attempting escape, he adds, “She’s not as bright as rainbows usually are because she’s about to shed. See, her eyes are milky.”

I ask to hold the snake and she feels wonderfully smooth and dry. She continues to move, along my forearm and over to my other hand, and I must work to keep hold of her. Up close, the colors jump out more. Light purple, brown, and a row of diamond-shaped scales that are half red and half yellow. I’ve never seen a rainbow snake before, dead or alive, but that’s not surprising since I live on the other side of the country, on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula. As a Forest Service wildlife biologist from the temperate rainforest, I work mostly with small carnivores, but in the last few years I’ve become more interested in amphibians and reptiles and the biologists who love them. I first got to know Kleopfer through our mutual participation in Partners in Amphibian and Reptile Conservation (PARC). This organization is dedicated to maintaining healthy populations and habitats of herpetofauna, the collective term for amphibians and reptiles, whose Greek root, “herpein” means “to creep.”

Now I’m in Virginia, accompanying Kleopfer into the field. Being a state herpetologist means that Kleopfer is involved in everything to do with amphibians and reptiles in Virginia, including surveying for the presence of different species throughout the state. Field inventories, which may include simple visual surveys or setting live traps, provide important information that can then be used to inform land management and restoration activities and/or land acquisition. Our first day together is cool, with breezes blowing in off the Atlantic Ocean at False Cape State Park. We …more

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Long-Lost Congo Notebooks May Shed Light on How Trees React to Climate Change

Records found in abandoned research station contain a treasure trove of tree growth data dating back to 1930s

A cache of decaying notebooks found in a crumbling Congo research station has provided unexpected evidence with which to help solve a crucial puzzle — predicting how vegetation will respond to climate change.

The treasure trove of tree growth data dating from the 1930s was found by the biologist Koen Hufkens in a tumbledown building at the Yangambi Biological Station, which was once Africa’s leading forest and agriculture research institution. Combined with other records, the recovered data allows Hufkens to make improved predictions about the health of the forest.

photo of tree in CongoPhoto by CIFORNotebooks discovered at an old research station in the Congo Basin contain weekly observations of some 2,000 trees between the 1930s and 1950s.

Hufkens, of Ghent University in Belgium, began researching the Congo Basin about five years ago. He had planned to install a high tech monitoring station known as a carbon flux tower in Yangambi. The instruments are indispensable for observing the way plant life responds to climate change and have become standard gear for studying forests in North America and Europe, as well as a handful of locations in the Amazon

Jungles such as the Congo forest play a critical part in controlling the rate of global warming; vegetation sucks up about 25 percent of the carbon dioxide we spew out of our tailpipes and smokestacks. Scientists believe much of this CO2 ends up stored in the trunks of tropical trees, with the Congo forest absorbing about 250 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide a year.

But research shows the tropical carbon sink is faltering. This means CO2 will build up faster in the atmosphere and temperatures will rise more quickly.

Scientists are working to understand better how tropical forests respond to shifts in rainfall. The Congo forest, second only to the Amazon in size, is particularly hard to study. Poor infrastructure, unstable governments and civil war have hindered systematic research. But understanding the Congo is important — it appears to be drying out, and it is hard to say how it will behave in a drier climate.

Hufkens was hired by a research team to install the first tower in the Congo Basin, but the project soon ran out of funds. Undaunted, Hufkens looked for other ways to examine how the forest responds to changes in rainfall. A colleague mentioned the neglected …more

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